Intercellular contacts, mediated by E-cadherin, are essential for germ cell migration and maturation. Furthermore, it has been suggested that decrease or loss of E-cadherin correlates with tumour progression and invasive behaviour. beta-catenin is involved in a number of different processes, including cell--cell interaction when bound to cadherins, and determination of cell fate in pluripotent cells when activated via the Wnt signal-transduction pathway. To shed more light on the role of these factors in normal fetal germ cell development and the pathogenesis of germ cell tumours (GCTs), the present study investigated the presence and localization of E-cadherin and beta-catenin by immunohistochemistry. E-cadherin was only weakly expressed in or absent from fetal germ cells of the second and third trimesters, and was not expressed in carcinoma in situ/intratubular germ cell neoplasia unclassified (CIS/ITGCNU) and gonadoblastoma, the precursor of an invasive GCT in dysgenetic gonads. In GCTs, it was generally not expressed in seminoma and dysgerminoma, but was found in the vast majority of non-seminoma cells. beta-catenin was found in the cytoplasm of fetal germ cells at all gestational ages and in spermatogenesis in post-pubertal testes. It was also present in CIS/ITGCNU and gonadoblastoma. Whereas seminomas and dysgerminoma were negative, non-seminoma cells were frequently found to express beta-catenin. Expression of both factors therefore reflects the degree of differentiation of these tumours. No differences for either E-cadherin or beta-catenin were observed between samples of tumours resistant or sensitive to chemotherapy, and E-cadherin expression did not correlate with vascular invasion. E-cadherin and beta-catenin therefore play a role in both normal and malignant germ cell development and differentiation that warrants further investigation, but they seem to be of limited value as predictive or prognostic factors in GCTs.